Citing a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, he said most people in the black community favor gun control because black neighborhoods have disproportionately been rocked by fatal shootings.
But Sunday afternoon, I talked with several members of black gun clubs in Maryland who represent a different side of the story. The people I interviewed love their guns and recalled growing up in black farming communities where every family had guns for hunting — and protection. They spoke of a love for guns that spanned generations in their families.
Inside the wood-paneled Prince George’s Trap and Skeet Center, a Maryland National Park and Planning facility tucked away off Good Luck Road in Greenbelt, logs crackled in the fireplace and the aroma of chili filled the air as men arrived to sign up for one of the final sessions in the Southern Maryland Winter League. Outside, members of the Metro Gun Club, a predominantly black gun club formed more than 50 years ago for African Americans banned from white gun clubs, took their places at the range to test their skeet skills. A rhythmic “pop pop pop” and the smell of gunpowder rose in the frigid air as the men shot at orange discs tossed in the whipping winds.
Glynnis “Larry” Byrd, president of the Metro Gun Club, has been around guns all his life. He remembers first holding a gun when he was about 6. “My father was a hunter, and a lot of our food came from hunting,” he said, recalling his days growing up on a farm in North Carolina.
When he moved to Baltimore as a young man, it was taboo to even talk about guns, Byrd said. In the more southern, more rural Waldorf, where about 16 Metro Gun Club members — mostly African American men, a few whites and one black woman — meet for camaraderie and shooting games, Byrd is free to indulge in his favorite sport.
“In Baltimore, talking about guns was like lighting a stick of dynamite. Here, in the club, we’re a bunch of guys who play with guns everyday,” Byrd said. “Nobody gets hurt because we practice gun safety.”
Byrd thinks the politicians working to increase gun controls are going about it all wrong: “I think there should be stricter laws to punish the ones who misuse their guns, rather than going after the manufacturers and everybody.”
Stricter laws will have little or no impact on the outlaws, Byrd said.
“We will never be able to take the guns away from the criminals. They’re going to have them even if we don’t have them,” he said. “They’re not going to turn theirs in. Criminals are not honest people.”
He echoed the sentiments of several African American gun owners I interviewed over the weekend — black men who love their guns, spend $8,000 to $20,000 on a single rifle; men who travel the countryside to hunt or participate in trap and skeet competitions.
Spencer Whalen, president of the Big Foot Hunt Club in Loveville believes “guns should be in the hands of decent, honest people.”
Whalen thinks assault rifles should be abandoned, restricted to military and law-enforcement personnel, but beyond that he wants to maintain his rights to buy and keep guns.
Whalen doesn’t fool with handguns, but he’d like to keep his rifles for sport. His father taught him to hunt small game — rabbits and squirrels they could eat — on a farm they owned in Charles County. As a young man, he learned to hunt big game — bears. He taught two of his nephews to hunt.
About 18 years ago, Whalen and about a dozen of his friends formed the Big Foot Hunt Club which would enjoy shooting events together. They pooled their resources and held cabarets to raise money to build their clubhouse, he said. When they were very active, hosting shooting events, they also donated money to the Lighthouse for the Blind.
One marksman at the Prince George’s Skeet and Trap Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled the time when he was a small boy and his father blasted a pumpkin head to show what could happen if a gun is misused.
“Everybody black had guns,” he said, recalling growing up on a farm in Montgomery County, where his family had 300 acres of land. “My grandfather hunted. My father hunted.” On his mother’s side, the family had about 300 acres of land in Calvert County, and the men hunted.
I was reminded of learning that my maternal granddad kept a rifle under his bed to protect against intruders. I also heard stories of women in my grandmother’s generation who kept pistols.
As a young woman living alone and working as a night police reporter in Virginia Beach, I had gone to a shooting range and taught myself to hit a target with a 9mm pistol.
The only reason I did not buy the gun was because I feared one of my younger siblings might find it while visiting, and there could be an accident. I could not show them the gun and teach them why it was off-limits because our parents would not have condoned them being around a gun, period.
Still, I found that I loved the sport of shooting: The concentration it took, the relief it gave was awesome. When I moved to Maryland, I went once to an outdoor shooting range with a friend who lent me his .357 for the day. I was just proud to take away the papers showing that I could hit my target. I believe a rapist is less likely to approach a woman he knows could blast him away.
“We are retired postal workers, retired government workers, entrepreneurs and retired police,” the anonymous marksmen said of the African American men he knows who love their guns.
“I’ve been shooting more than 60 years . . . competitively since 1998,” said Rudolph “Rico” Saunders. His first gun was a Winchester Model 67 Single Shot, .22-caliber rifle. “They don’t make ’em any more,” he said.
Another gun owner, who has collected seven weapons — three pistols, one rifle and three shotguns — said he got his first gun, a BB gun, for Christmas when he was nine. His father also taught him to hunt small game on their family farm in southern Maryland. “For me and my dad, it was sport. But my grandparents ate whatever was shot,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He still hunts.
“I like the challenge, the thrill,” he said. “Squirrels in the woods are different from squirrels you see in the city. They’re very, very smart. They have extremely good hearing and extremely good vision. So you have to really tip in the woods, or you have to wait.”
Other African American gun supporters spoke of new challenges in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December and talk of tighter gun control laws in its wake.
“I’m torn. I don’t want guns to shoot people, but I don’t want you to take away my guns either,” said one gun owner, who has owned firearms for years.
He said that last year he participated in a day-long shooting course with a group of African American men, including a popular minister. The class, however, was predominantly white, he said, noting the doomsday preppers, known for stockpiling weapons.
“White folks are armed to the hilt!” he said.
Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a columnist for the RootDC.
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